Power Struggles with Your Children

Power struggles with your children are often common, but they can be stressful and negatively impact your relationship. What typically triggers power struggles in infants and toddlers? What are some strategies for defining and measuring good (and bad) behavior? And what common mistakes are most parents making that actually make the situation worse?

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Episode Transcript

Parent Savers
Power Struggles with Your Children

Please be advised, this transcription was performed from a company independent of New Mommy Media, LLC. As such, translation was required which may alter the accuracy of the transcription.


[Theme Music]

Scott Koenig : Power struggles in parenting are common, but it can also be stressful, unpleasant, and negatively impact the relationship you have with your child. In a power struggle, nobody wins. The good news is that implementing some consistent strategies can significantly reduce power struggles. When we learn how to reduce power struggles, we are teaching our children life long skills that build good character, such as responsibility and self control. I'm Doctor Scott Koenig, a licensed clinical psychologist, and today we're talking about dealing with power struggles. This is Parent Savers, episode 66.

[Theme Music/Intro]

Johner Riehl : Welcome back everybody once again to Parent Savers, broadcasting from the Birth Education Center of San Diego. Parent Savers is your weekly online on the go support group for parents of newborns, infants and toddlers. I'm your host, Johner Riehl, and thanks again for all of our loyal listeners who joined the Parent Savers Club. Our members get all of our archived episodes, bonus content after each new show, where we do a special conversation with our expert, extending the show. And plus, we also have special giveaways and discounts that we offer to our members, so it's definitely cool, and it's cool that you are a part of it. You can subscribe for free to our monthly newsletter, if you're not already a member, and you can get a chance to win a membership to our club each month. Another way for you to stay connected is by downloading our free Parent Savers app, available on the Android and iTunes market place. We're all here today to talk about power struggles, we're joined in the studio – and we're actually going to put Erin and Sunny on mike as well, so we've got a big group, because I think we all have some power struggles in our lives with our kids, so let's go around and introduce ourselves, and let's say where do we stand with our kids as far as the situation of power.

Scott Kilian : I'm Scott Kilian and I'm 36 years-old, I'm a certified financial planner, I've got one boy, Alex, who is 3. And, regarding power struggles, I definitely see the difference about how he treats both Andrea and I. I take more of a hard line with him than she does, and I definitely see the challenge that she goes through with him. I basically give him a couple options and he will do one of those two options, and that's how I mitigate that issue with him.

Molly Riffel : I'm Molly Riffel, I'm 32, I'm a stay at home mom and also a teacher. I have a 2 year-old, Abigail, and a 3 month-old, Riley. I'm kind of like Scott, I'm the one who lays down the law and give my daughter two choices, she always gets two choices, and she can do the good choice or the bad choice, and she gets in trouble if she does the bad choice. And my husband is the one who is very relaxed and he struggles with her constantly.

Sunny Gault : Hi everyone, I'm Sunny Gault, I am the host and producer of Parent Savers' sister show, Preggie Palls, which is all about pregnancy. I am pregnant myself, with twin identical girls, due in December.

Johner Riehl : Yey!

Sunny Gault : Yes, 'cause I also have two boys! That's a part I didn't get to yet, so yeah, a 3 year-old, who is my power struggle in general, and a 14 month-old that I'm worried is going to become a power struggle, because he's watching his older brother.

Erin Esteves : Hi, my name is Erin and I'm a producer. I have a 20 month-old, Cash, and my husband and I are very similar in our techniques and our strategies, but our thresholds are much different, so that's something that we also are dealing with.

Johner Riehl : And I'm Johner, and we have three boys, 6, 4 and 2. And as far as the power struggle is going, I think that we deal with the kids too. I actually think the 2 year-old ends up with the most power in the whole family, and he knows it, 'cause he'll say things to the oldest and we just really need him to not be crying right now. I know that's not a good technique and we'll get into that, but right now I think the power – I know the power ain't on my shoulders! And Scott, how about you?

Scott Koenig : It's not as easy as just saying, “I need you not to cry right now!”

Johner Riehl : Surprisingly!

Scott Koenig : Surprisingly, that's not effective. My name is Dr. Scott Koenig, I'm a clinical psychologist and I'm in private practice here in San Diego. And I have two boys, a 7 year-old and a 4 year-old, and yes, a lot of power struggle going on in the house. But it was nice to hear when you were doing your intros, one of the strategies is really limiting choices, I think Scott you were mentioning that, that it's this or this and you choose one, and if you don't like it, that's that. And that's often a very useful technique, whenever you can limit the amount of options and choices you child has, that's at least one way of reducing that struggle.

Johner Riehl : Alright, we'll talk about that and more when we dive into the topic.

[Theme Music] [Featured Segments: The Best Apps for New Parents]

Johner Riehl : Before we start today's topic, we are going to look at an app, on behalf of Parent Savers, and see if it's something that we would recommend for parents. This app that we're looking at today is a free app, it's called Baby Sitter Seal, and the name itself I think is funny, babysitter... maybe a seal would sit on your baby, but this one is designed to provide some soothing sounds and maybe some activities for baby. You can get it for free, on the app store, if you look out Baby Sitter Seal. And there are two settings, the setting where there's a crying baby face, and there's a setting where there's a sleeping baby's face. And then you've got five different choices of songs to choose from that are soothing sounds for sleeping. And if they are crying, they're a little bit more white noise or maybe a little more calmer, to draw their attention more and calm them down. It's not like police care sirens or anything like that. Actually they're calming and each screen has some slightly interactive things to do. It seems a little bit strange to think that you would take your device whether it is your phone or iPad, and live it in the room with the baby to go to sleep. To just kind of leave it there. I think that that's the thinking behind it. The one thing with the two settings on both setting you can touch the seal and it makes that noise, that seal noise, and then the bubbles pop. So if you're trying to get your kid to go to sleep, why would you want him to focus his attention on pressing that seal and making that ridiculous noise?

Scott Kilian : That's a very good question!

Johner Riehl : I think the thinking would be that, here, there is a little lullaby playing in the background, so you can touch the seal and then secretly get lured to sleep by the calming sounds of the ocean waves. I think that this app, if you are – and there's a huge giant “if” - totally fine with using your phone as a digital pacifier to replace parenting, than it's probably kind of cool, 'cause it has a timer.

Sunny Gault : I just don't trust my little guy – wait, first of all, what age range is this supposed to be for?

Johner Riehl : I don't remember what it says on the store.

Sunny Gault : OK, my 14 month-old is still on the crib, and I would not leave a very expensive device like this in the crib!

Johner Riehl : But haven't you seen that Fischer Price makes an iPad holder and iPhone holder made of plastic, that they can hold.

Sunny Gault : I've seen that.

Johner Riehl : All right, let's go around and do thumbs up and thumbs down and let's see if this is something that we would recommend for our fellow parent savers. Scott, would like to start?

Scott Kilian : Down, both thumbs.

Molly Riffel : Down.

Sunny Gault : I would say unless you have the e-tray baby, thumbs down.

Erin Esteves : Well, I'm going to have to go with the middle ground on this, simply because we use a lot of white noise with our son when we put him down for bed, because we live in a very noisy neighborhood. I don't think that the little interactive thing is good, or even fun, to be honest. So I'm going to have to go with the thumbs down.

Johner Riehl : I will say this, this app exceeded my expectations when I heard about it, but that still isn't enough to turn the thumbs up, so thumbs down, let's look elsewhere, sorry Baby Sitter Seal.

[Theme Music]

Johner Riehl : Now it's time to jump in today's topic, we are going to talk about dealing with power struggles, and I think that as soon as most parents hear this, they say, “Oh yes! There is power struggle in my house!” So let's talk about it and let's talk about some strategies to deal with this. Thanks so much for joining us Dr. Koenig.

Scott Koenig : Thanks for having me back!

Johner Riehl : Let's start with what do we mean when we're talking about power struggle?

Scott Koenig : For today's purposes, we're talking about an exchange between a parent and a child , really anytime you're asking your child to do something and they're refusing to comply, when you find them pushing back against the request you give in ro the rules you have set down, you often find yourself involved in a power struggle with your child.

Johner Riehl : And so how old do you see – 'cause we have baby Riley over there, maybe she is in a power struggle in a way, young babies I guess can be involved in breastfeeding power struggles, as far as wanting it versus getting it. But how old do you typically see?

Scott Koenig : There are different degrees, you can make an argument that can start certain things around 1 years-old, but without sounding too cliché, the terrible twos is usually when you start to see most of it, and it can kind of happen, again, different times along the life span and in different intervals and developmental process. But really it's when are children are individuating, that's the first step, getting that sense of control and power. Some of it is very healthy and normal, and completely within the normal limits, but it's frustrating and aggravating at the same time.

Johner Riehl : To focus on the word “power” in power struggle, regarding what you talked about control, is that what's really kind of happening? It really is about trying to control who has the power? What's happening with these power struggles?

Scott Koenig : I think all human beings strive to feel powerful. And children are no exception to that, so when a child is feeling overpowered by their parents, they may react because they're feeling powerless, by fighting back through rebellious and oppositional behaviors.

Johner Riehl : Sunny, what kind of rebellious and oppositional behaviors are you faced with?

Sunny Gault : Him just not wanting to listen to me, and I feel like that is a power struggle. I tell him to do one thing, he does the exact opposite. It feels like I'm totally bashing my child right now...

Johner Riehl : In 13 years he's going to listen to all of this!

Sunny Gault : But I do feel that it can be rubbing off again, on my 14 month-old, and he is just my 14 month-old – granted that there are differences in behavior simply because of their age – but I really the 14 month-old is going the more settle route and not so aggressive as my older one. But I feel like he's being tainted a little bit, “My big brother doesn't listen to mommy, so maybe I shouldn't”, or “Maybe I can throw that toy because my big brother throws the toy”.

Johner Riehl : I think it's also tied into as a parent knowing the line and setting the line, as far as what you are trying to control and what can you let them get away with.

Erin Esteves : The whole “pick your battles” thing.

Scott Kilian : You know, one of the things I've heard that this power struggle thing is, from the child's perspective, they don't feel safe with the rules of the game. Have you heard of that, Doctor Scott, they're operating in this abyss, they feel more comfortable on the fringe, where there's a lot of activity going on, the choices, this and that, when you give them too much, or they're not confident...

Scott Koenig : The children perception is negative attention is also attention. So children are often seeking attention. It's attention, you're engaging, and when your child is acting out and you engage in that, and we all do it, and especially if the tension is going on for a period of time, it's really hard to ignore, ignoring is actually one of my favorite interventions in the world, and it can apply to so many things. But the moment you engage, you are sending a message to your child that the longer I misbehave, I will crack you, I will get to you. It's such a normal part of development, but where we make mistakes is really often in the level of engagement that we put into when our kid is acting like that.

Johner Riehl : So let's figure out as parents, let's start talking about what it is that we maybe need to do to help solve these problems. Because it's not like we can ask our kid, like maybe somebody admitted in the introduction, “I really need you to stop crying right now!”

Scott Kilian : And you said that wasn't effective.

Scott Koenig : From an intervention standpoint, I mentioned ignoring, I always joke in my practice with parents, I say, “I went to graduate school and the whole thing and the best thing I walked away with was ignoring”. But there is kind of a systematic way of doing it, and I'm really big on not just ignoring a child if they are not understanding what you're doing. I always struggle with the verbal plan, “Mommy is going to ignore you right now until you can calm yourself down”, or daddy, of course, “I'm not going to pay attention to you while you are in this emotional state, when you can calm yourself down, then we can talk”. The problem is, once you start ignoring – let's say you're ignoring for ten minutes, which in parent world that seems like three hours. Ignoring for ten minutes, you're doing great, and you're doing awesome, and your child's following you around, you're not looking at them, you're not engaging with them, and one minute after, you look to your child and you address them with your body language or you say something, then that ten minutes meant absolutely nothing and in fact it actually was such a negative intervention, because you've just again showed them, “If I misbehave long enough, I will get to you”. And it makes the next time you ignore them much more difficult.

Johner Riehl : 'Cause it just automatically sets the bar, they'll just go right to that ten minutes.

Scott Koenig : Exactly.

Sunny Gault : Smart little bugger.

Scott Koenig : There are certain behaviors that can't be ignored, physical harm, physical harm to a sibling, destruction of property, they're throwing vases and things or throwing things at you, those are things we can't ignore. But so many things that our children do, such as wining and repeating the same thing a million times to get what they want, those are the types of things that you can ignore, and ignoring does not mean you're detaching in a way that is not showing your child love, it's just showing them that in order to get my attention, as a parent, and get your needs met – 'cause children are little narcissistic beings, they want their needs met – you need to behave in an appropriate way. And it's a really good life lesson, really setting them up.

Johner Riehl : One of the things that happens with us though, Christine and I choose different times to ignore, like when driving in the car, we would be driving in the car and someone is going to be wining, “Daddy, daddy, daddy!”, and she says, “Do you hear him? Are you going to answer him?”, and I'm like “No, I've kind of chosen the ignore technique right now, obviously”, but it doesn't work if one of you can't ignore him at that moment.

Scott Kilian : You need to be like a third base coach, you have to have a signal.

Erin Esteves : 'Cause that's the problem Matt and I have as well, and I think that what Dr. Scott is saying is that if you have that prompt phrase before, then everybody knows, “Oh, OK, this is ignore mode”, or avoid stance.

Johner Riehl : But then I guess you need to set up the end time, too, would that help with getting rid of the whole 11 minutes syndrome, like after ten minutes I'm going to talk to you again? Or I guess that would defeat the whole purpose?

Scott Koenig : It's going to fluctuate, there's not an exact science to it, but the longer you get into that mode, and again, I think that's a great point in terms of the consistency, both parents have to be on the same page, there has to be some dialogue, it's like preparing for battle, when this happens - and you know it's going to happen, you're in tune with your child often, you have to do it together. If one parent's doing it and the other isn't, it's a wash, it's not going to be effective. But the longer you do it, and the more consistent you do it, it should really decrease the length of time, the duration of the tantrum. And also the frequency of the tantrum. Because if a child is going to internalize, “Wow, this strategy of tantrum is really not working. I'm really never getting my needs met, so I need to find a different approach to get my needs met”. That's what we want to install in the child.

Scott Kilian : There's a couple of things that I've tried. One is, he'll do this thing and I say, “You know, would it be away to tell me that if you really wanted to get what you wanted, if you really wanted”, what would you do, and they usually say please or something like that and it's a lot calmer than what he's doing, the other thing that I like to do is when he does his little tantrum I'll get on the floor and I'll throw a bigger tantrum than him, and he'll be like, “What's wrong, pappa?”, and I'm like hitting the ground and everything and all of the sudden it moves from him to me. Whatever he was crazy about, it's now about something else.

Scott Koenig : I think that as parents we really overuse the timeout intervention, it's like our default, just because sometimes in the heat of the moment we don't know what to do, but I like sometimes, even in the house, to create a safe area, it's a positive timeout, you don't even have to use the word timeout, just that you need to go to your quite place right now, where you can calm down. Sometimes it's in your room, you can create a tent or with the boys it's a fort looking like structure, and it's kind of a nice visual cue for them.

Sunny Gault : We have a little couch in a closet and she's got books and she can go in there and read when she's ready and calm enough she can come back out and she realizes it works, she goes through that quicker.

Johner Riehl : Alright, let's take a quick break and when we come back let's talk a little bit more about other ways to deal with power struggles, these are some good parenting tips, Dr. Koenig as well, and we'll also talk about some more positive reinforcement too.

[Theme Music]


Johner Riehl : Welcome back everybody, today we're talking about dealing with power struggles with Dr. Scott Koenig and our panelists, who are all dealing with their own power struggles. Hopefully, you're enjoying the conversation that we're going to continue now. Let's start with talking about some of the positive reinforcement techniques. I think we already touched on a couple of them, but if there is anything else to add, as far as that goes, I think we also have some good parenting tips as well.

Scott Koenig : Whenever I'm working with a new family, I always start with what I call the CPR of parenting. We're talking about consistency, reliability and predictability. Those are the key, and I'm always really so interested in different strategies that parents use, and when they say, “Dr. Koenig, I tried this” or “Should I try this”, usually my answer is yes, give it a go, but just be consistent, predictable, and reliable with it. Don't try something for two days, and say that it's not effective. So that's often a key, we are talking about the follow through. And in terms of the behavior modification, it's often a really good way to reduce power struggles, when your child feels like he is working for something, and working for something doesn't have to be a toy, doesn't have to be something really expensive, it can be positive praise, it could be that they are working special time with you, special activity, we can do a token economy system which is usually the most well known behavior modification intervention, where your child can earn tickets or stickers or poker chips, and sometimes you may want to attach a reward menu to that, so they know that, “Oh, if I can save ten chips I can get this, if I can save 20 chips I can get this”.

Johner Riehl : What I'm struggling with here, what I'm power struggling with here...

Scott Kilian : Are we having a power struggle?

Johner Riehl : I think we are... Acting right is fundamental or should be, amongst the society, when you reward the behavior is almost saying... should they be rewarded for doing something that they already should inherently doing?

Scott Koenig : Great question. We're talking about the difference between bribery, and something that should be just the expected norm of how they're behaving. I'll give this example, if you are in a grocery store, and your kid wants a candy bar, and they are screaming for the candy bar, and you are saying no, and it's escalating, and you're getting anxious because a lot of the other moms and dads are giving you the stink eye, and you just want to diffuse the situation, and you say, “Here! Here's the candy bar! If you stop crying I'll give you the candy bar!”, that's bribery.

Johner Riehl : I've never done that.

Sunny Gault : No, never, I have no idea what you're talking about.

Scott Kilian : I've never done it either.

Scott Koenig : But it's no different than any stage of development where you're training your child. So I look at is as if they're working towards something, and again, it doesn't have to be a toy, but there are certain things that we need to shape and mold, I think the easiest thing to do, the easiest message to convey to the child is you got to have a target behavior. You got to have something specific, I think sometimes parents make the mistake of, “OK, we're having a play day right now, and you just need to behave. You really need to behave!”, and the kid's thinking, “Ok, I guess I know what that means”, but there's a difference between saying you need to behave versus saying you need to follow directions the first time I tell you without arguing. Or, we're going to have - maybe you have siblings or some aggressive behaviors - we're going to have quite hands right now. We're going to play together very nicely and calmly. If you can't do that, then we are not going to play together and I'm going to take the game away. So you're kind of setting up expectations beforehand. But it's a great question, because yes, some of this behavior should be expected, but you need some tools when they're not.

Johner Riehl : What are some other things that we need to make sure not to do to deal with power struggles?

Scott Koenig : Too many choices. I often find that AM routines and PM routines for parents are often very difficult. Dinner time, meal time is so difficult for parents. You ask your child what they want and they say, ok, I want maccaroni and cheese, and you give them maccaroni and cheese, and then they say I don't want maccaroni and cheese, and then you go back in the kitchen and you make them a hotdog, and they say they don't want a hotdog, and then you make them a pizza, it's like you become a short order cook. It's limiting choices, “OK, tonight for dinner you can have maccaroni and cheese or you can have a hotdog”.

Johner Riehl : But choices are good 'cause they get control though, right? It's OK to give them some choices, but not like, “If you could have anything in the world for dinner, what would you have?”

Scott Koenig : No, keep the choices very limited. We talked about ignoring, another big intervention I like “when then statements”. A lot of books talk about “if then statements”, if you do this, then you'll get this; I don't like that, because whenever you say “if”, it gives them an out, it gives them a choice. So when you clean up your toys, then mommy will read you a book. When you calm yourself down and stop crying, daddy will take you outside and we can throw the bowl around. It's really an effective strategy. I'm very big on schedules and routines, I think you severely limit power struggles when your child can anticipate what's coming next. I have a big helper intervention, I feel like when you get a child to feel like they are empowered, and you say, “Can you be my big helper, I need help making dinner”, or “Can you be my really big helper? I need some help cleaning up the floor and we can sing a game and we can do it against the clock, let's see if we can do it in 30 seconds!” It's amazing how that stuff can really be effective versus “Johnny, you need to clean up your toys!”

Johner Riehl : As we are looking to change behavior, what are some reasonable time frames? If it's a behavior such as, let's say, your kid is throwing things when they shouldn't be, and you know that that's a big one, it's not reasonable correct to say “Alright, I've set up this chart now, so no more throwing”. I mean, or is it? Is there a learning curve, what are some reasonable time frames? Because it's hard to change behavior overnight.

Scott Koenig : Very hard. I'm very big on – first step is again defining what that target behavior is, so maybe it's throwing toys, maybe that's the target behavior we want to go after. We want to do one at a time. Don't do a bunch. Measure the behavior, get the baseline, so that you really know how properly managed this is. Sometimes as parents I think, because it's even hard to remember what we did yesterday, it's really difficult to know how frequently this behavior is occurring. Sometimes we have a tendency to either overate or underate the amount that something actually happening, so what I have parents do is measure the behavior for one week. If it's throwing toys, we would probably want to use something like frequency, how often is this behavior occurring? Measure it for a week. Come back, let's see what we're really dealing with here. Then we are going to have an intervention. Whether it's a token economy system, where they can earn stickers or charts combined with a reward menu. Sometimes it depends on the behavior, but I usually have a 30 day role, I like to try something for 30 days before we end it and say that it's not working. But again, do one at a time. One behavior at a time. And then, a good verbal reinforcement is, “You're doing so great on not throwing your toy, that we're going to add another thing in here where you can even work and get more of X currency”.

Johner Riehl : Alright, well thanks so much for joining us Dr. Koenig, and thanks so much for everyone who joined us in the studio and for all of you guys for listening. For more information about dealing with power struggles, you can make sure to check out our website, we've got more information and a link to Dr. Scott Koenig's website as well on the episode page of ParentSavers.com. We are going to continue the conversation for members of our Parent Savers Club after the show with Dr. Koenig, so stick around for that if you are a club member. For more information about our club, visit ParentSavers.com.

[Theme Music] [Featured Segments: Ask the Experts]


Johner Riehl : Now we have a question from Marry. Marry writes, “My 10 month-old bed-shares and wakes up every 30 to 60 minutes for the first 3 to 4 hours of the night. And she nurses every 2 to 3 hours during that stretch. Then we'll do a 4 to 6 hours stretch, but why the frequent waking? Naps are similar, but every 30 to 40 minutes. I think she doesn't transition sleep cycles well until that super deep sleep in the middle of the night. Is the any way to help her transition cycles better?”

Joanna Clarck : Hi Marry, this is Joanna Clarck from BlissfulBabySleepCoaching.com, answering your question about your 10 month-old that is waking up frequently during the night. I understand that can be so challenging, and it's true, sometimes in the beginning of the night, there are many many frequent wakings. One of the main causes of that can be two things, one is that bed time is too late, that can cause frequent wakings and for that age group, bed time should begin typically no later than 8 PM, and the best way to work into that bedtime is to look at your nap schedule, and not to have more than a 4 hour interval between afternoon nap and bedtime. That would definitely help minimize your wakings and also, regarding naps, at 10 months, the typical sleep expectations for a child that age is to get 3 hours of daytime naps spread between 2 to 3 naps a day. If a child isn't getting close to the 3 hours, that absolutely will contribute to multiple wakings during the night. So I would go back to naps and kind of see if you can do better and coax your baby back to sleep after some of those short naps you're experiencing, and over the course of time you will find that some of those night wakings might go away. And again, double check on your bed time as well as that 4 hour interval between afternoon nap and bedtime. And that should help you. Good luck, and take care!

[Theme Music]

Johner Riehl : That wraps up today's show, thanks so much for joining us on Parent Savers, don't forget to check out our sister shows, Preggie Palls for expecting parents, hosted by Sunny, who joined us today, once again, we're so excited for her being pregnant with twin girls, and our show the Boob Group for moms who breastfeed their babies. Next week, we're going to be talking about plagiocephaly, or flat head syndrome. This is Parent Savers, empowering new parents!


This has been a New Mommy Media production. Information and material contained in this episode are presented for educational purposes only. Statements and opinions expressed in this episode are not necessarily those of New Mommy Media and should not be considered facts. Though information in which areas are related to be accurate, it is not intended to replace or substitute for professional, Medical or advisor care and should not be used for diagnosing or treating health care problem or disease or prescribing any medications. If you have questions or concerns regarding your physical or mental health or the health of your baby, please seek assistance from a qualified health care provider.


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